Sometimes this is what happens when you ask a Craig to play a preview version of Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger.
WaaaaaWaaaaaWaaaaaa Wah Wah Wahhhhhh WaaaaaWaaaaaWaaaaaa Wah Wah Wahhhhhh WaaaaaWaaaaaWaaaaaa Wah WhuWhuWahhhhh WaaaaaWaaaaaWaaaaaa Wah Waaaaaaaaah.
Hello, varmints! I’m usually a lot classier than that, but I’ve just spent an hour-and-a-half with the new Call Of Juarez game, Gunslinger, and it’s turned me a bit olde tyme. Just be glad I’ve not been watching Deadwood, or you wouldn’t be be comfortable showing this preview to grandmothers or children.
Gunslinger is a revisionist take on Techland’s shooter series. The previous games were sprawling and a bit oddball, provisioning you with whips and bibles as well as guns, and spreading the story over multiple characters. Gunslinger is about the guns and how well they sling. So far I’ve not seen a hint of the characterful strangeness that’s been a hallmark of the series. That’s not to say it doesn’t play about with the format, but there’s only one character, no bibles, and I didn’t hear as single crack of a rolled piece of leather. I only played the first three levels, but it didn’t feel like any further oddnesss would be forthcoming later, either.
What I did play was as linear as a gunshot, but pretty satisfying. I adopted the bandy-legged gait of Silas Greaves, a bounty hunter reliving his life story with some whippersnappers. He’s met with Billy The Kid and Pat Garret, so you know his life is going to be interesting. Just how interesting is up to how forthcoming he is about it. He deals with both the myth and the reality of the situation in the narration, and at least once a level will take the time to correct something about his past he feels has been a tale told tall.
Like towards the end of the opening level of Stinkin’ Springs. It’s a one-horse town that Billy The Kid’s holed up in. I had to fight my way through to team up with him. Even this early in the game, there are more bullets than oxygen in the air, but plenty of cover to dip in behind. I’m given a quick course in the vagaries of the combat, and aside from the click-to-make-bangs, there’s the series’ usual slow-motion, built up by gaining XP as you play and deployed in tight spots. There’s a new tech tree with three sections to build your own cowboy: Gunslinger (dual-wield skills), Ranger (long range), and Trapper (close combat). I wasn’t with the character for long enough to see a huge difference over time, but my first buff was the dual-wielding six shooters. Even though the AI is kind of easy to pop off from the prodigious amount of cover on offer, it doesn’t take away from the clicky, smoky goodness that the guns have been imbued with. They are good guns.
Stinkin’ Springs circles in towards a central house, the action mostly inching forward from cover, to where Billy is. Getting there sets up a last stand between the gang assaulting the place and the people inside. So, yes, I fought my way in, blasting heavily and happily, fought from the inside out to thin out the gang, then fought my way back out again, when Billy decided it was time to flee. It’s here the narration impacts on the game. According to the game’s mythology, I meet up with Pat Garret and we duel, which is a little event in itself. We wander around each other, I have to keep the drifting crosshair over his body and react just after he goes for his gun.
But, wait. According to the narration, that’s not what happened. The game rewinds
Instead I’m arrested and thrown in jail, but now I at least know how to duel. It’s pretty neat to see the story be rewritten live, and there are some interesting implementations later on.
The next level, a town called Lincoln, is where the jail lives. I escape with Billy’s help—though he’s using me to distract the others and make his own escape—and grab a gun. It’s hilarious: the gun is a shotgun grabbed from a character named Bob Ollinger. It’s introduced with a cut-scene that details everything that is sexy about the gun. The narrator goes on at length about how powerful and devastating it is. I take it and blast my way to the rooftops, as per the narrator’s excited storytellin’. When I get there he explains he escaped via planks between the rooftops, and they drop into existence, allowing me to run and get into cover. It’s an interesting comment on the linearity of the game: I was definitely playing to the beat of the game’s drum. The rest of the level is just shooting, lots and lots of shooting, but with big six shooters thumping bullets into people and Bob Ollinger’s Shotgun blasting bigger holes.
It’s the next level that I think might just be a little bit too contrived. It begins with a post-escape Silas looking for work. I come across a hijacking, and it’s explained in the narration that I’m ambushed ‘Apache-style’, so the surrounding canyon walls are suddenly topped with rifle-firing Native Americans. I fire back at them, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. There are too many, and there’s not enough cover or ammo. Then the narrator starts to explain that it wasn’t Apaches, but just that the ambush was in the style of them. All the people I’m fighting wibble and turn into cowboys, doubling the number of killers up there. Then the narration points out that it there were too many people to fight, so he ran. So I have to run, sprinting through a cave system, the narration explaining how I kept going and going and didn’t turn back. Which is what I do. I run until the end of the cave system gives way to an opening where a few prospectors have perished and left their guns and dynamite. It’s the dynamite that turns the tide, sending the chasers fleeing back through the caves, and chasing them leads me to a boss fight.
Old Man Clanton is perched with a big machine gun on top of a hill. His bullets are shreddier than a shredded wheat made from confetti and then kicked through a fan while Slash plays the fast bit from Paradise City. They shred. Luckily there are covering rocks, and the space between the cover takes roughly the same amount of time time to run across as it takes him to reload his big gun. Imagine that? If he had ten more bullets, I’d be dead.
All this is done entertainingly, but there’s still little of my own agency in it. I dodge and shoot and reach him and kill him without too much trouble. It was also the last story level I was allowed to play.
If the story seems like it’s in the way, there’s arcade mode. It sets up a playthrough for each level, letting you fiddle with the tech tree before pushing you into it and telling everyone things you drunkenly said about their mother. There’s no narration to get in the way of the gun play. It was here I noticed the combos. When you pop into slow motion, if you kill enough people and boost your XP, you can more quickly move back into the concentration state that slow-mo’s simulates. While I enjoyed the way they used the narrator to mess with the game, there were times when it felt the story was pressing on me. Not so in arcade mode, where all I had were guns and time. I discovered a few extra areas off to the side in the Lincoln escape level that I’d previously missed. They weren’t more than room sized extra areas peeling off from the main drag, but they were filled with enemies and ammo.
I’m still surprised. This wasn’t a game anyone expected to happen. Not after The Cartel. I’d imagine it’s a small apology to the small group of people that grew to love the Call Of Juarez series, only to see it launch itself a good fifty feet over the shark. I was pleasantly surprised.